In a recent book, The Power of Silence, Graham Turner tells the story of Ian Sutherland, sentenced to life imprisonment for a particularly horrific murder. One day in prison he picks up a book which keeps mentioning the Buddha. He begins to read more – and eventually learns that there is Buddhist monastery not far away. He gets in touch and one of the monks comes to visit him, as a result of which he begins to meditate daily.
Within a month he has stopped smoking and taking drugs, but it is a struggle trying to meditate. Silence does not exist in prison. During the day there is the constant Boom! Boom! of dance music, doors banging, keys jangling, staff shouting, bells going off when a fight breaks out … Even at two in the morning conventional silence does not exist.
Yet he perseveres, and slowly he becomes conscious of something positive happening inside him. ‘The ego is mighty,’ he says, ‘but I have a sense of what Buddhists call my inner self beginning to come to the surface, like a light shining through a window. The best way I can explain what I am trying to do in silent meditation is this: The sun, which is our inner being, our true self, is always shining, but for the moment there may be a cloud covering it. When you meditate you start to brush those clouds away. It’s like a war going on, and it’s going on even now. Every day is a battle. Sometimes the ego wins, sometimes my inner self. A few times I have almost thrown in the towel.’
With all the ups and downs Turner asks what, for him, has been the value of meditation. Sutherland replies, ‘The first thing is that I now accept that what’s happened in my life is down to me and nobody else. Before I could blame everything on other people – my mother didn’t love me enough and so on. It was always someone else’s fault. And the second thing is that I now know that there is a purpose to my life, which is to be the best possible human being I can be, and to treat everyone as I would want to be treated myself. I am facing up to things for the first time in my life. The mind stops, all thought ceases and you’re at one with God, the Great Spirit, or the Buddha.
‘It’s like the seed which lies within us. All we can do with that seed is plant it, water it, perhaps put a fence around it. For the rest, we have to rely on grace – and that is what meditation can help you find. This is the best thing I have ever done in my life.’